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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Are the ‘Lesser’ Appellations in the Rhone Valley Really Second Rate?

While it is no secret that I adore all types of wines that stem from the Rhone, a weakening dollar and increasing global demand for wines from this region has caused me to take a closer look at the famed region’s less prestigious appellations to find value. My major criticisms regarding top wines originating from less heralded segments of the Rhone is that, while not short on character, they lack the polish, depth and textural refinement of their more prominent siblings. I hoped that this tasting would change my perception of these wines a bit, at least in regard to any pre-conceived notions I may have had concerning their quality. The good news is, it did shut me up, well, at least a little bit.

For theme purposes, the ‘lesser appellations’ were defined as any region of the Northern or Southern Rhone that is not Cote Rotie, Hermitage or Chateauneuf du Pape. We were all responsible for sourcing various wines of each region and tasted them blind. While there were certainly a few pedestrian, blasé pretenders in the lineup, a couple wines of the bunch absolutely had me completely fooled that they were not of ‘lesser’ pedigree at all (to the tune of ‘who snuck in a real Chateauneuf in here?!’). It likely won't shock anyone that Santa Duc proved to be the cream of the Southern Rhone's lesser crop, nor that Chapoutier was....well, Chapoutier, but there were a couple studly showings from names that may not currently be on your radar screen but are absolutely worth a closer look next time you find yourself on the lookout for value from the Rhone.

There was no particular order assigned to wines, which were served in flights of two.

2000 Tardieu-Laurent Gigondas - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Gigondas

This wine’s color was not nearly as saturated as that of number 2, suggesting just a hint of age. The nose had me fooled that it could have been a maturing Bordeaux, emitting notes of lilac, currant, tobacco, gravel, pepper, iron and hints of cassis. The wine was epitomized by finesse; it had a medium bodied, elegant personality that contained its rock solid structure admirably. This beauty should drink very well for the next decade, 91 points.


Perhaps the inkiest wine that we tasted throughout the evening, I knew this was the Mordoree immediately. This was a heady, structured and forebodingly tight effort that hinted at mocha, violet and sweet raspberry perfume in its backward, sinewy profile. The wine currently lacks definition and loaded w/ mouth-puckering tannins, but should emerge after a few years in the cellar (as it was tough to accurately assess last night), 88+ points.

2001 Patrick Lesec Gigondas Les Blâches - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Gigondas

This wine was a haven for those that find pleasure in Provencal essences, as the myriad of spicy herb notes that ejected from this Rhone became immediately cozy w/ me. Notions of spicebox, vivid garrigue, pepper, dry-rubbed beef, strawberry and cherry flavors scintillated the savory senses of the palate in an un-relenting fashion. Plush and generous in the mouth, echoing complex spice notes that simply wouldn’t quit as this baby Chateauneuf really stretched its legs on the long, mineral driven finish, 92 points.

2003 Delas Frères Crozes-Hermitage Le Clos - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage

While things began in a somewhat close to the vest fashion through the leafy, underbrush scents of this youngster, the palate polarized my opinion of this heat-wave charged Syrah. My immediate impression in the mouth was that of a ‘dialed down Aussie Grenache,’ as the exceptionally ripe, nearing candied notes of blackberry reduction, framboise and crushed fruit character seemed too forward, unbridled and precocious to possibly be a Crozes Hermitage. While ’03 produced uncharacteristic wines that could be referred to as irregular at best, the brightness of the fruit gave this aloof Syrah an intrinsic appeal that I feel for, irregular or not, 91+ points.

2003 M. Chapoutier St. Joseph Les Granits - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph

Perhaps one of the most seriously crafted wines of the evening, this Syrah crossed all its t’s and dotted each i w/ kit gloves. Notes of new saddle leather, tarry black cherries, grilled herbs, pepper and plum sauce that were so well proportioned, pure and painfully suave. The wine was more about presence than power, as the lingering effects left the palate w/ a substantial impression that belied the wine’s size, 93 points (damn Chapoutier is a phenomenal winemaker!).

1999 Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas Prestige des Hautes Garrigues - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Gigondas

This wine captivated the table, as each one of us swooned over this elixir in unison (well, it would have been simultaneously, had I not been drinking so slowly!). A spell-binding nose of dried porcini mushrooms, clove, allspice, crème de cassis, graphite and cocoa that reverberates throughout the palate in a rich, multi-dimensional fashion. The wine is layered, gorgeously textured and painfully symmetrical; as it carries you off to the promise land in its dazzling finish which pumps out herbs de Provence in spades. Santa Duc is a producer that I’ve been critical of in the past as I’ve found most of their wines to be extremely complex, but ruggedly textured and lacking the suppleness of its more illustrious Chateauneuf peers, but this vintage smashed just everything else from them that I’ve tried & made me a believer (was it due to the character that ’99 provided or was this wine handled differently when it came to the extraction process?), 95 points (consensus wine of the night).

2004 Château de Saint-Cosme Gigondas - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Gigondas

Although this wine had a tough act to follow, it did so admirably and w/ style. This was a flat out pretty effort, from head to toe, ejecting violet, black raspberry, leather, cassis and iron from the glass in a cohesive, fabulously textured package. The wine had zero hard edges and provided a complex, pleasurable experience that should impress any lover of Rhone wines, 92 points.

2005 Perrin & Fils Vacqueyras Les Christins - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Vacqueyras

I’ve tasted this wine several times, and this was the most impressive showing yet (little did I know I’d get to taste it twice tonight?!). The most powerful, full-throttle exhibition I’ve ever witnessed from a Perrin & Fils Les Christins, dialing out high voltage raspberry ganache, kirsch, spicebox and pepper notes in a well framed, lovely textured package. For how widely distributed, inexpensive & accessible this wine is, this level of quality is almost unprecedented. Having said that, we unknowingly tasted this wine twice when we sampled wine 14. While both had a luxuriously ripe profile, the second sampling was far less compelling and much more monochromatic. There are three trains of thought as to why this happened:
  • I brought wine number 14 and decanted it for 2 hours (it is an ’05 and can show in an extremely tight fashion) and wine number 10 was popped and poured, sans breathing. So breathing (counter-intuitively) could have hurt this wine.
  • Wines of such high production and varied distribution are subject to more dramatic variation from bottle to bottle (whether it’s at the producer level, distributing level or handling level, it seems to be a fact of life that is demonstrated painfully well by Las Rocas).
  • We are crappy tasters and have no clue what we are doing! I rated the initial bottle 91+ points and the 2nd bottle w/ an 87…my notes were somewhat similar on both but I stated the wine 14 was simply un-interesting.

2004 Domaine de la Montagne d'Or Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret Excellence - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret

This was perhaps the most innocuous and superficial wine that we tasted all evening. It had a grapey, superficial disposition on the palate that was neither impressive nor offensive. There was a decent foundation of sweet, ripe fruit, but it was simply not accompanied by anything compelling nuance or character to distinguish itself. Personally, I’d find this to be a decent picnic drink, but tend to prefer rose on my outdoor excursions, 81 points.

2004 Franck Balthazar Cornas Chaillot - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Cornas

Hands down, the most Burg-friendly beverage we consumed yesterday from aromatics alone. An earthy, brett-ophiles delight, expelling cigar tobacco, cedar, truffle, damp underbrush and red currant scents that unfortunately were all about foreplay as they lead to an attenuated, tannic and somewhat hollow mid-palate that craved flesh for requisite balance. I think this is a case and point of what the high yields of ’04 correlate to, great noses and lean, ungenerous palates, 84 points.

2001 Patrick Lesec Vacqueyras Vieilles Vignes - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Vacqueyras

I found this wine to demonstrate the potential and promise of the appellation of Vacqueyras, but also expose its vulnerability in elevating the regional winemaking to the next level. A dazzling nose of iron, graphite, soy, bay leaf and currants that lead to yet another depth-less palate which disappoints me because there is no reason for this wine to not be outstanding. It is loaded w/ character and foundational elements, but simply can’t complete the package in terms of textural richness, depth and length, 86 points.

2003 Sequillo Cellars Sequillo - South Africa, Coastal Region, Swartland

A mirror image in quality to number 13, as this wine was technically sound, provided complex elements of intrigue, but lacked the excitement and intensity of its outstanding peers. The aromas of Indian spices (curry, cumin), figs, leather and black currants were a nice start, but the medium bodied, modestly constructed palate lacks length and is two dimensional wine in a three dimensional world. I consider this wine to be a solid framework to build on for future vintages (perhaps a metaphor for the Cape's potential w/ this varietal?), 85 points.

2005 Pierre Gaillard St. Joseph Clos de Cuminaille - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
We saved the classiest wine of the bunch for last, as I could have easily mistaken this for a young, unevolved Chave. Copious amounts of black pepper, raspberry, fig compote, tarragon, violets and crushed rocks emerge in this tantalizingly pure effort that is just waiting to blossom. Hauntingly shaped, delicately nuanced and poised for a beautiful future, this ’05 gave Chapoutier a run for his money, 93+ points.

2003 Weinlaubenhof Alois Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese - Austria, Burgenland, Neusiedlersee

In homage to a fallen pioneer, I hope to do him a touch of justice w/ my feeble impressions of his recent work. While I am unfamiliar w/ his wines, this mélange of botrytis inflected grapes had fermented to a formidable higher alcohol (12 plus percent) and was endowed w/ a gorgeous amount of acids to define its suave notes of bee pollen, honeysuckle blossom, apricot, brown sugar and white flowers. The palate was beautifully streamlined, cut and had such focus to its intensity of flavors that I think all of us had the pleasure of paying tribute to the great man last night. Cheers to him and all that he inspired with his passion and direction.

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